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The Seed Paper People

The Seed Paper People

They’re making magic in Malmesbury. Like greeting cards that become gardens. Meet the seed paper people…

Words and Pictures: Ron Swilling

Photo-GrowingPaper 6bThe sign caught my eye: ‘100% plantable, recycled and handmade in South Africa.’ There must be few of us who can boast such an enterprise.

I had chanced upon this, on the back of enchanting greeting cards at a local shop, several months before I found myself driving down the muddy road outside Malmesbury, past a contingent of cows and vineyards lined with sweet-smelling roses, at the foot of the Paardeberg.

Actually it was the charming, colourful designs on handmade cards that first caught my eye. Finally, it was the surprise of discovering that the gift cards were embedded with seeds, which when planted would sprout into flowers, vegetables or herbs. (Planting instructions are printed on the back – you simply bury the card 1mm deep under soil where you want your card garden to grow, and keep it damp till the seeds germinate. Voila).

I was enraptured with the idea – and gathered a few cards to add to my purchases. I couldn’t help enquiring about such innovative people who were adding their green, creative touch to everyday life.

Finally I found them on the Wyngaardt farm outside Malmesbury, where the Growing Paper team have formed a remarkable bond over the six years since the small company’s inception. The group of 18 have gained what they call “a feel for the paper” and paper making, an essential skill necessary to create the thin, quality paper that can be easily folded and printed in a variety of designs and patterns. And they all seem to have a knack for this art, as if they were born into it.

Gentle melodies played on the radio while some of the staff returned from a life-skills course in the adjacent building, and the rest continued with paper making. Some were involved with preparing the pulp and water mixture, adding the necessary spoonfuls of seed before scooping the mixture onto the wooden frames.

Photo-GrowingPaper 21cThe wet sheets of paper were then transferred onto pieces of felt and pressed to extract excess water, before being taken to the large and airy tunnel and pegged on the lines like fresh, clean laundry. The rest of the crew manned desks to shred waste paper, guide the dried card through the row of printers, cut the printed A3 sheets, or string and package the finished product.

Growing Paper began when Roxanne Schumann came up with the idea in 2009 and was joined by her old school friend, Nileta Knoetzen. The pair bought second-hand paper-making equipment and started to experiment in the workshop on Roxanne’s family farm in Malmesbury. Gradually, Growing Paper, as they had decided to call it, grew.

In the small office above the work area, Nileta (who heads production) tells me of their humble beginings. “I’m so proud. In the beginning, we would have to drive to Cape Town to collect used paper. Now we get it all locally from Malmesbury, donated by several businesses, the municipality and local schools.”

Nileta explains how they had a few bumps along the way, and some growing pains, until they perfected the process. “Because our paper is so special, it was not always easy to work with, especially during the printing process.” She had to keep reminding herself that the paper was handmade.

“We’ve always had a high standard,” Nileta says. “In 2010, we started exhibiting at the Organic Expo & Green Show at the Cape Town International Convention Centre, and our first client was the popular Melissa food stores.” Subsequent growth has been extraordinary. Growing Paper now also makes notebooks, bookmarks, calendars and gift-tags, greeting cards, invitations, promotional material, thank-you notes and season greeting cards. Or, whatever custom cards your heart desires.

The calendars caught my attention first, each embedded with tomato, thyme, carrot, lettuce and parsley seeds. Each a veggie and herb garden in the making. “At the end of every month, you can tear off the page and plant it, and by the end of the year, you’ll have a small vegetable garden,” said Nileta.

It’s the seeds that add that extra puff of magic to the cards. Four varieties of seeds, easy-to-grow and small in size, are used – mixed flowers (poppy and alyssum), indigenous flowers (vygie and African daisy), herbs (basil and rocket) and vegetables (carrot and tomato).

It seems that I am not the only one to be dazzled by the seeds, which I notice sprouting in experimental lumps near the paper baths, like unruly morning hair. I manage to have a quick chat to staff manager Porcia Madubula, who lives on the neighbouring farm. Porcia tells me how she planted the paper in the tunnel last year, nurtured the plants as they grew and later on happily harvested the small juicy tomatoes. She also describes how the Growing Paper staff rotates jobs every day. “It’s so that everyone has a chance to be involved in all processes of paper making.”

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Before I end our conversation – to wander through the workshop, bordered by a farm field, and to visit the drying tunnel where white paper is strung up like laundry – I ask Porcia about the family-tree diagram covering one of the workshop walls.

“It’s our family tree,” she says.

I take a closer look before I gather my keys and cameras and drive out past the vineyards, roses and cows in the muddy enclosure, back to the main road. It seems entirely fitting – the company that grows seeds has a family tree on its wall. ‘Our family’s growing’ read its inscription. Indeed it is.

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